Ending on an upswing: 10 moments that defined Iowa football season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — Will the 2018 Iowa football season be remembered for the three consecutive close losses that knocked the Hawkeyes from contention in the Big Ten West Division?

Or for the three straight wins at the end that left Iowa with a 9-4 record and a spot in the national rankings?

Iowa football players celebrate at the Outback Bowl Tues., Jan. 1, 2019, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Iowa defeated Mississippi State 27-22.

Iowa’s 27-22 Outback Bowl victory over No. 18 Mississippi State at Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday didn’t erase the disappointments that preceded it. But it certainly left players, coaches and fans feeling much better about a team that ultimately learned how to close out narrow wins.

“It shows that our team is gritty. We stuck together through the ups and downs of the season,” Iowa junior safety Amani Hooker said after his team beat a ranked opponent for the first time. “It’s a true brotherhood.”

A look back at 10 key moments that defined the Hawkeyes’ season:

A timely transfer boosts backfield

The Hawkeyes knew they were thin on experienced running backs heading into spring practices. Akrum Wadley and James Butler had graduated, leaving sophomores Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young to carry the load.

But it was a third back who didn’t arrive on campus until June who ended up as Iowa’s leading rusher. Mekhi Sargent, a Florida native coming off a strong season at Iowa Western Community College, nearly went to Louisville before the Hawkeyes came calling.

“It was a no-brainer,” Sargent said in August. “I just wanted to be here.”

It took little time for the 5-foot-10 (if you believe the media guide) Sargent to endear himself to Hawkeye fans.

He rushed for the lone touchdown in a Week 2 win over Iowa State and added another pair of scores the following Saturday in a blowout of Northern Iowa. Sargent piled up 121 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois and topped that with 173 tough yards and a score in the regular-season finale vs. Nebraska.

He was Iowa’s leading rusher with 745 yards. And Sargent has two years left in the black and gold. Quite a free-agent pickup for the Hawkeye coaching staff.

Iowa offensive lineman Keegan Render (69) defensive end Parker Hesse (40) and offensive lineman Ross Reynolds (59) carry the Cy-Hawk trophy after the Cy-Hawk NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cyclones, 13-3.

A clean sweep of Cyclones for seniors

It ended up being Iowa’s best win of the regular season. And it certainly held a great deal of meaning for the team’s small but tight-knit senior class. Iowa State came to Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 8 for its first game since a Liberty Bowl victory the previous December. This is a program on the rise. But not this day.

The Hawkeye defense was at its best, holding Cyclone star running back David Montgomery to 44 yards and keeping Iowa State out of the end zone in a 13-3 win. The game marked the first big play of sophomore wide receiver Brandon Smith’s career, a 30-yard snare that set up Sargent’s third-quarter touchdown.

But it was Iowa’s 12 seniors carrying off the Cy-Hawk Trophy as the sun set at Kinnick who felt the most satisfaction. They became the first group in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons to go undefeated against the rival Cyclones.

Senior defensive end Parker Hesse summed it up best.

“There’s 3 million people and 27 million pigs involved in this game. So it’s kind of a state holiday,” Hesse said through a big smile. “That’s bragging rights for the rest of our lives.”

The seniors later capped off sweeps of rivals Minnesota and Nebraska, as well.

Badgers put first dent in Iowa season

But not Wisconsin. That was the rival the Hawkeye seniors could never seem to tame. And this year’s loss may have stung the most.

The Week 4 setback, Iowa’s first of the season, will be remembered for two costly mistakes in the punt-return game, one of which practically handed the Badgers a touchdown and the other negating a long Hawkeye gain.

But Iowa still led 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter, and simply couldn’t contain Badgers senior quarterback Alex Hornibrook. A player who was mistake-prone throughout his career, including a pair of pick-sixes vs. Iowa the previous fall, suddenly could do no wrong.

Hornibrook led Wisconsin on an 88-yard scoring drive, capped by a 17-yard strike to wide receiver A.J. Taylor for the go-ahead score. Alec Ingold piled on with a 33-yard touchdown run in the final seconds to seal a 28-17 win.

The theme of the game was a lack of pressure on Hornibrook, and his ability to handle the pressure of the moment for once. The loss knocked Iowa on its heels for the first time in the season, and became an unwelcome recurring theme in league games.

“When you play as hard as you can for 60 minutes, pour a lot into it, it hurts,” Iowa senior safety Jake Gervase glumly said afterward. “They just made critical plays when we couldn’t make them. … We didn’t finish strong and that ended up costing us the game.”

It may also have cost Iowa a shot at a truly special season.

Iowa's Amani Hooker (27) ran back this interception at Purdue for a touchdown that was called back. He and Geno Stone lead the Hawkeyes with four interceptions apiece this season.

A fateful (and maybe permanent) change to Hawkeyes' defense

After that Wisconsin loss, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker made a significant change to his alignment. He had rotated five different starters among his three linebacker spots, spending four games searching for the proper combination.

The answer ended up being a third safety. Junior Amani Hooker, the most versatile player on the Hawkeye defense, was moved down to the outside linebacker position, creating a new role that still doesn’t have a name (“star” and “cash” are among the monikers used). That allowed Parker to line up sophomore Geno Stone at safety alongside Gervase.

Suddenly, Iowa’s defense had a new dimension. Hooker has speed, the ability to hit hard and, most importantly, excellent instincts. He intercepted four passes and was named the Big Ten Conference’s defensive back of the year.

Stone also intercepted four passes, as did Gervase. Iowa recorded two shutouts (vs. Maryland, at Illinois) after the switch was made.

Hooker will have a chance to leave early for the NFL if he wishes. Freshman cornerback D.J. Johnson seems to be being groomed to replace him at the new hybrid position if he does. Iowa appears to have embraced a 4-2-5 defensive scheme going forward to better combat spread offenses.

Hooker gets much of the credit.

“It changes what we can do on the back end. It gets more eyes, and a little better coverages on the outside,” Hooker said in the leadup to the Outback Bowl. “You can switch up coverages here and there. You can adjust a lot of stuff on the fly as well. It doesn’t have to be game-planned. It can be little adjustments.”

Two tight ends terrorize Indiana, then one of them practically disappears

It was a historic season for Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson and a mystifying one for his running mate Noah Fant. They had their best moment together on a crisp autumn afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana.

Fant, one week removed from a concussion, was unfazed by the bright sunshine at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium, hauling in a 28-yard first-quarter touchdown pass from Nate Stanley. He ended up with 102 yards.

Hockenson outdid him by five yards and one touchdown, finding paydirt twice on his four catches.

Stanley threw for 320 yards and six touchdowns in all. Iowa romped 42-16 to run its record to 5-1. All seemed rosy on this day.

But it wouldn’t remain that way. Hockenson kept churning out big performances, leading the team with 760 receiving yards and becoming the first underclassman to ever win the Mackey Award given to the nation’s best tight end.

Fant found his playing time limited, a situation that was never adequately answered by the Iowa coaching staff. The junior finished with 39 catches for 519 yards and seven touchdowns, then skipped the Outback Bowl to get ready for the NFL Draft. He is a potential first-round pick. Hockenson is also weighing an early jump to the pro ranks.

Fant and Hockenson never became quite the dynamic duo that fans had reason to expect them to be. But they’ll always have Oct. 13, 2018, on their resumes. They became the first pair of tight ends to eclipse 100 yards in the same game in Iowa history.

“I love it,” Hockenson said of being part of Iowa’s tight end tradition. “Just to have your name even announced with theirs is an honor. The history that we have here is really special, especially in the tight end room. There’s no words for it.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley gets sacked during the Hawkeyes' game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

A despondent moment in Happy Valley

Stanley’s junior year at quarterback was statistically better than his sophomore campaign. He completed a higher percentage of his passes (59.3). He threw for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns. His command of the playbook increased.

But he is still seeking a signature road victory. His best chance came on a rainy late October evening at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium.

Stanley had been off-target all game. He ended up completing just 18-of-49 passes, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Still, he had Iowa in position to grab a stunning upset win, trailing 30-24 with 3:18 remaining and a first down near the Nittany Lions’ goal line.

That’s when disaster struck. Stanley read the defense and changed the play call, thinking he had an easy touchdown toss to Toren Young out of the backfield. He took the snap and immediately lofted a pass to his left, not noticing that Fant hadn’t taken his defender into the end zone yet, leaving Penn State safety Nick Scott free to grab the football and stymie Iowa’s last, best chance.

Stanley threw only 10 interceptions. This was the one he desperately would love to have back.

“Good players hit tough times sometimes,” Ferentz said. “The good ones bounce back, and he will.”

Stanley has already said he’ll back for his senior year. One more chance to lead his Hawkeyes to a close win in a tough environment.

Suddenly, Iowa defense springs a leak

A week later, Stanley passed for 275 yards and a touchdown, also running for the first score of his career. But the normally stingy Hawkeye defense couldn’t contain a Purdue wide receiver named Terry Wright.

All the attention coming into the game was on Boilermakers’ freshman sensation Rondale Moore, who typically lines up in the slot. He was limited to 31 receiving yards.

On the outside, however, Iowa was starting freshmen cornerbacks Julius Brents and Riley Moss for a fifth consecutive game. It was also the final time they started this season. Wright, and senior quarterback David Blough, shredded them to the tune of three touchdown passes. A last-second field goal handed the Boilermakers a 38-36 win and ended any slim hope the Hawkeyes had of winning the Big Ten West Division.

It was shocking to see the Iowa defense victimized repeatedly in its worst showing of a season in which it led the Big Ten in points allowed.

“We wanted to give up no deep routes, and that’s what really hurt us. We gave up five or six of those,” Hooker said. “If you cancel out two of those big plays, that’s two touchdowns right there, and we win the game.”

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley (84) evades Northwestern's Cameron Ruiz (18) during a Big Ten Conference football game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Northwestern celebrates a Big Ten West title on Iowa's turf

Wisconsin fell by the wayside in the Big Ten West race. Purdue couldn’t keep pace either. The division was there for the taking for Iowa. But Northwestern showed why it was a deserving champ on Nov. 10 at Kinnick Stadium.

The Hawkeyes took a 10-7 lead into the fourth quarter. They couldn’t stop Wildcats freshman running back Isaiah Bowser, who gashed them for 165 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Bennett Skowronek made the catch of his life to secure a 32-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter. And Iowa, which had prided itself on hanging on the football all season, inexplicably lost fumbles on its final two possessions to let the Wildcats celebrate a 14-10 win and a Big Ten West title.

It was the story of the season winnowed down to 15 crucial minutes for both teams. Northwestern made the plays to win games. Iowa did not. All through the Big Ten season.

“In this league, there’s a lot of close games and a lot of games are going to come down to the end,” Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley said. “And if you can’t make those plays that count in those tight games, you’re not going to win.”

Iowa went 1-3 in conference games decided by fewer than seven points. Reverse that number, and the Hawkeyes would have been playing for a Big Ten title.

Finally, a narrow win and a jubilant Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium

The one close Big Ten game Iowa found a way to win was the season finale against Nebraska, on Senior Day at Kinnick, with a senior providing the final jolt.

Iowa had managed to squander a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead against a Cornhuskers team under first-year coach Scott Frost that showed it was not going to be the pushover it was in past meetings. The score was tied 28-28 heading into the final Hawkeye drive.

Sargent gained 31 crucial rushing yards. Stanley stepped back and threw a fastball that Hockenson cradled for a 10-yard gain on fourth-and-8.

Miguel Recinos came on to try a 41-yard field goal into the renovated north end zone. It sailed through the uprights as the clock hit zero and Recinos dashed gleefully to the south end zone, windmilling his arms and making sure there was no painful dogpile.

It was the one shining moment that the team had been looking for all season. And it happened before 65,299 fans at Kinnick.

Recinos made 17-of-22 field goals and all 47 of his point-after tries. But one of those errant kicks had happened earlier in the fourth quarter against Nebraska.

“I would never tell coach Ferentz this, but I always seem to be better after I miss one,” Recinos said. “It just gets easier for me to black everything out because I kind of get angry. But that anger is positive.

“I knew I was going to make the kick.”

Iowa president Bruce Harreld (left) and football caoch Kirk Ferentz congratulate wide receiver Nick Easley after he was named MVP of Tuesday's Outback Bowl. Easley caught eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns in the finest, and final, game of his Hawkeye career.

Onetime walk-on wide receiver from Newton shines in Florida sun

Iowa struggled to move the football against a Mississippi State defense that led the nation in points allowed at 12 per game. The Hawkeyes gained a mere 199 yards.

Senior wide receiver Nick Easley produced 104 of those on eight catches. Easley’s 75-yard score in the second quarter gave the offense a glimmer of confidence, Stanley said afterward. His 8-yard score in the third quarter ended up being the game-winner.

It was the best game of his two-year Hawkeye career, and Easley was named MVP of the Outback Bowl as a result.

No Division I team looked at Easley coming out of Newton High School. He spent two years at Iowa Western Community College. The Hawkeyes came in late with a walk-on offer two Christmases ago, while preparing for the Outback Bowl.

Afterward, Easley stood at a podium, still wearing his black No. 84 Iowa jersey, and brought his head coach to tears while talking about an unlikely Hawkeyes career that included 103 catches.

“There’s not a lot of places where a guy like me could come in, two years of eligibility left, walking on from junior college,” Easley said. “No one really knows who I am, and they gave me every shot in the world to compete, just as much as a scholarship guy. And I’ll be forever thankful for that.”